Exactly one month ago I attended the Dodge Poetry Festival, held biannually in Newark, NJ. I really didn’t know what to expect when I bought my festival tickets, but my hope was that I would learn more about the mystery of becoming a published poet. I also hoped to be inspired, not just by hearing excellent poets read their work, but also by traveling alone, being in New Jersey, and most of all, seeing the beauty of autumn in the Northeast.
During the festival, several of the sessions were with panels of poets who both read their own poems and discussed poetry with each other in front of the audience. Afterwards they opened the floor to questions from the audience. I attended one such panel, which consisted of four poets: Billy Collins, US poet laureate, Steven Kuusisto, A. Van Jones, and Natalie Diaz. It was a great conversation, as they are poets from all different walks of life, and I enjoyed some of the poems they read, namely “Ode to the Beloved’s Hips” by Natalie Diaz, “from” by A. Van Jordan, and one of my new favorites, “Suggestion Box” by Billy Collins.
When they opened the discussion up for questions from the audience, I bounded (literally) down the theater steps to the mic. I had missed asking my question the day before, so I was ready. This is what I asked:
I write poetry, and have been doing so for many years. It is a very necessary part of my life. However, I hesitate to call myself a poet. So, my question is, at what point in your careers as poets did you feel justified to call yourself a poet, and more generally, when do you think it is appropriate to do so?
Billy Collins was the first to respond. He said that he felt that he could really call himself a poet when he received the phone call from the librarian of Congress, informing him that he had been selected as poet laureate. He got a chuckle from the audience. Later on, when I had a minute to chat with him by myself, he added that he never calls himself a poet to random strangers. He said that one time he sat next to someone on an airplane, who asked him what he did, and he said he was a poet. “Oh, my 13 year old daughter writes poetry,” the person responded. After that, he said, he never tells people he’s a poet, and just tells them that he’s a teacher instead.
The second response was from A. Van Jordan, who said that he didn’t feel justified in calling himself a poet until he received monetary compensation for his work. That, in his eyes, made him legitimate in front of family and friends.
The third, and final, response was from Natalie Diaz. She said that if poetry is important to me, and such an important part of my life, then I should own the title “poet.” That way, she said, I will make time for it in my life, and give it the importance it deserves. In order to be a poet, we have to make time to actively write, and take time to do so. So, she said, I think you should call yourself a poet now.
Steven Kuusisto said he liked Natalie’s answer, and so do I. I felt very encouraged by what she said, and I know she is right in saying so. I make time for things that are important to me in my life, such as staying in shape and being outdoors. I religiously make time for important naps on Saturdays.
As a wife and work-at-home mother of five children, my life can be very hectic. Solitary moments are what I crave the most, followed closely by meaningful adult interaction, especially conversation. But, silence and solace are the most valuable to me, because that is when I can actually think deep thoughts. It’s from my deepest thoughts that some of my best poems have sprung, so I try to do what I can to get to that place. It’s a struggle, as those opportunities are elusive, so this is possibly why many poems germinate in my mind while I am driving or trying to fall asleep (apparently composing words in my mind is how my brain defragments itself). I try to carve out time for writing, or even just thinking, but it has always been difficult to justify, given my circumstances.
So, guess what?
I am a Poet.